Who could forget the media coverage of the massive wildfire that struck Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016? Similarly, the California wildfires the following year were particularly destructive. FEMA estimates that fires caused a whopping $23 billion in losses nationwide throughout 2017.
Would you be surprised to learn that the Gatlinburg fire was allegedly sparked by an arsonist? Arson, or fire-related crime, is surprisingly common even in our home state, Texas. How do authorities across the state investigate and punish arson crimes? What types of defense strategies can you use if you’re accused of arson? Get all the details below.
Arson-Related Charges in Texas
Fire-starting is a crime because fires can quickly spread out of control. They have the potential to destroy buildings, cause fatalities and injure innocent bystanders. Federal laws prohibit the willful setting of fires, conspiring to cause a fire and attempting to damage property through fire.
In Texas, arson crimes are defined as:
- Starting a fire or explosion with the intent to damage or destroy
- Recklessly causing a fire or explosion while manufacturing a controlled substance
- Intentionally starting a fire that spreads and unintentionally causes damage
There are a few exceptions to these laws. If the fire in question started during a controlled burn of open space, then the act won’t be considered criminal arson. Similarly, if the fire-starter obtained a legitimate permit for the fire, then it’s not arson.
How Arson is Investigated in Texas
So, how do arson crimes get investigated in Texas? Most often, an arson case is opened when someone reaches out to the authorities regarding a fire. Immediately, firefighters, police and investigators are dispatched to the scene. The first priority for responders is to ensure everyone’s safety and stop the immediate threat.
Once the fire is stopped and those in need are receiving care, investigators take over. They begin analyzing the scene, searching for evidence and taking specific notes. Here’s what goes on during this initial investigation:
- Investigators attempt to collect any DNA, fingerprints and other forensic evidence from the scene
- Analysts will look for signs of accelerants
- Witnesses will be interviewed
- Authorities will take photographs and videos of the scene
- Detectives document their experiences by completing a report
- Evidence gets processed at the lab
Prior to 2011, detectives utilized the process of elimination to prove without a reasonable doubt that a fire was arson. In short, if detectives couldn’t find a legitimate reason for the accidental ignition of a fire, then they’d assume it was arson.
Another method early arson investigators used was focusing on evidence that proved a fire burned at an unnaturally hot temperature or at an unnaturally fast pace. Investigators assumed those factors were good indicators that a fire was intentional.
Over time, several problems arose due to these accepted practices. It became clear that anecdotal evidence and an inability to find the cause of a fire doesn’t prove that a person intentionally started a fire. This revelation has helped change the way fires are investigated, but it’s also made prosecutors realize that they may have falsely imprisoned dozens of innocent people.
What to Expect After an Arson Conviction
Under Texas law, arson is a serious felony. That means there’s a potential for significant penalties after a conviction. The circumstances surrounding your case will dictate what level of arson charges you’ll face. Here are the levels of arson-related crimes:
- State Jail Felony: person’s recklessness while manufacturing a controlled substance starts a fire which causes property damage
- 3rd-Degree: person’s recklessness starts a fire that causes injuries or deaths
- 2nd Degree: the fire was started intentionally that causes property damage with losses from $150,000 to $300,000.
- 1st Degree: the fire was started intentionally to cause injury, property damage or death. Losses exceed $300,000.
A 1st-degree arson charge is the most severe, so it carries heavy penalties. A conviction will result in a jail sentence. You’ll be given a sentence ranging from five years to life in jail depending on the circumstances of your case. You’ll likely also be heavily fined. The maximum fine you could face is $10,000.
Second-degree arson charges are less steep, but convictions still result in a loss of freedom. Often, this crime carries sentences ranging from 2 to 20 years in jail. The least severe arson crime, a state jail felony, may result in anywhere from 6-months to 2-years in prison.
Keep in mind that a criminal conviction will impact other areas of your life. If someone else was injured or lost property, then you could face a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit in civil court. A criminal conviction will work in favor of the victim’s civil claim.
Defending Yourself Against Arson Charges
Have you recently been charged with arson? The severe penalties looming over your head should be concerning. Whether you’re knowledgeable regarding the law or not, it’s often best to hire outside legal representation who can help you reach the best possible outcome. Here are a few tips that you need to remember during the initial investigation process:
- You have the right to remain silent
- You have the right not to incriminate yourself
- You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning
- Never admit fault or say that you caused the fire
- You do not have the right to lie to the authorities
As the investigation proceeds, you may or may not be free to leave police custody. You may also be subject to intense questioning. Remember, you have the right to remain silent and the right to request a lawyer.
Reclaim Your Rights: Retain a Lawyer
It’s clear that the forensic science behind proving arson is limited. That means it’s more difficult to prove without a reasonable doubt, that someone has committed the crime. This burden of proof remains on the shoulders of the prosecution, which will ultimately work in your favor.
Are you or a loved one facing arson charges in Texas? Don’t hedge your freedom on the hopes that a judge or jury will take your side. Instead, utilize your Constitutional right to hire qualified legal representation to fight for you. Are you ready to get started on a defense strategy?